It’s becoming a more and more frequent site – people standing on street corners, parking lots and sidewalks holding cardboard signs asking for food or money.
For some, it’s a sign of difficult economic times. For others, it’s a nuisance that shouldn’t be tolerated. And for some, it’s a signal that more needs to be done for folks down on their luck. During some recent Hermiston City Council meetings, the council heard from citizens complaining about panhandlers in town. One woman simply wanted them off the streets. Another Hermiston resident, Donn Walls, urged the council to find ways to help them.
On Monday, Hermiston City Manager Byron Smith addressed the issue with council members.
“Like Mr. Walls said, there’s lots of opportunities and lots of people who can help,” he said. Smith asked Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston to look into what options the city has in dealing with panhandlers, who can be seen daily on the corner of Elm Avenue and Highway 395, as well as the parking lot of Wal-Mart, among other locations in town.
In a memo to Smith, Edmiston said creating new ordinances to prohibit people from asking for handouts could likely infringe on their freedom of speech.
“I’m not sure the creation of any new ordinance is the right or smart path,” he wrote.
Edmiston also said such a prohibitive ordinance would also put greater demands on his staff.
“The draw on police resources to actively watch for this interaction would become very challenging and could inevitably draw remarks the police should have better things to do,” he wrote in his memo to Smith.
Instead, Smith said the city will focus on working with property owners and directing panhandlers to social services available to them.
Smith said officers will approach businesses to determine if they would like to have the panhandlers leave their property. If that is the case, it’s likely panhandlers will move to public sidewalks. The city already has ordinances prohibiting anyone from blocking the public right-of-way.
“It will give our officers the chance to talk to them and get in contact with agencies that can give them some real help,” Smith said.
Hermiston City Councilor Manuel Gutierrez suggested giving panhandlers temporary work, such as raking leaves so they can earn some money.
Councilor Lori Davis said she liked the proposal put forward by Smith and Edmiston.
“It’s a good plan for now,” she said.
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